(Reuters) – President Donald Trump called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth” in a swipe at the U.S. territory’s leaders as they prepared for Tropical Storm Dorian which became a hurricane on Wednesday and headed for the island.
Dorian gathered strength over the U.S. Virgin Islands to become a Category 1 hurricane, and is expected to hit eastern Puerto Rico with heavy wind and rain.
Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from back-to-back hurricanes in 2017, which killed about 3,000 people just months after it filed for bankruptcy.
Dorian is approaching Puerto Rico from the southeast although it is blowing winds considerably less powerful than when Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017.
However, by the time Dorian hits Florida late on Sunday or Monday, it could be a major hurricane, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC).
After approving an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico late on Tuesday, Trump took a swipe at the U.S. territory in a tweet on Wednesday morning.
“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!” Trump wrote.
Trump has a history of disputes with Puerto Rico’s leaders. He was heavily criticized for a tepid response to the 2017 hurricanes that battered Puerto Rico.
This week, Democrats in the U.S. Congress also slammed him for shifting $271 million earmarked for disaster aid and cyber security to pay for detention facilities and courts for migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, on Tuesday described the shift as “stealing from appropriated funds.”
The NHC said Dorian was blowing maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph) on St. Thomas island in early afternoon.
Two years ago, Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma when Maria struck, destroying roads and bridges and leaving much of the Caribbean island without electricity for months.
“We are better prepared than when Hurricane Maria attacked our island,” Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez said on Tuesday.
Vazquez, who took office this month after political turmoil led to the resignation of her predecessor, said preparations for the storm were more than 90% complete.
Infrastructure ranging from electric power lines to telecommunications and banking networks were in better shape than they had been in 2017, she added.
The U.S. response to Maria became highly politicized as the Trump administration was criticized as being slow to recognize the extent of the devastation and in providing disaster relief to Puerto Rico, an island of more than 3 million people. Trump later disputed Puerto Rico’s official death toll of 3,000.
Hogan Gidley, a White House deputy press secretary, accused Puerto Rican authorities on Wednesday of misusing taxpayer funds in the 2017 hurricanes.
“The money we sent down there, we now know, several on the ground have been indicted for misusing that money, giving it to politicians as bonuses, watching that food rot in the ports, the water went bad,” he told reporters.
Puerto Rican public schools are closed on Wednesday and public workers have been instructed to stay home, Vazquez said.
Royal Caribbean’s cruise liner “Allure of the Sea” canceled a scheduled visit to the island on Thursday, and Carnival Cruise Line also adjusted its itineraries, the governor said.
A U.S. Air Force base in Cape Canaveral, Florida, home to the largest spaceport in the United States, entered the early stages of hurricane preparations Wednesday morning
“Teams will start preparing personnel and facilities for the possible arrival of the storm,” the base said in a statement.
Reporting by Andrew Hay; additional reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez, Alex Dobuzinskis, Rebekah F Ward, Lisa Lambert, David Alexander and Joey Roulette; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Alison Williams and Alistair Bell